On a September day in the 1820s, the Henchard family arrives on foot at the village of Weydon-Priors. Michael Henchard seeks work as a hay-trusser, but he and his wife Susan, who carries their small daughter Elizabeth-Jane, stop for food at the furmity tent at the local fair. Henchard takes servings of alcohol from the furmity-woman, and, as he becomes drunk, he loudly proclaims his unhappiness with his wife and his foolish decision to marry young. Eventually he, half-jokingly, decides to auction off his wife to any other man. A sailor named Richard Newson appears in the doorway of the furmity tent and offers five guineas for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. Susan leaves with the sailor with an angry pronouncement to her husband that she will try for happiness with a different man. Henchard, drunk and somewhat confused by the outcome of events, falls asleep in the furmity tent.
The next day, Henchard is furious with his wife for her simple-minded agreement to her own sale. He knows that she must believe the transaction to be valid. Henchard attempts to track down his wife and daughter, but eventually must give up the search. He vows to not drink again for twenty-years. He travels south to settle in the town of Casterbridge.
Eighteen years later, Susan Henchard arrives in Weydon-Priors at the time of the annual fair. She is accompanied by her grown daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, who is unaware of her parents’ history. Elizabeth-Jane has grown up with Richard Newson as her father, and only his recent death at sea has caused Susan to decide to attempt to find her long-lost first husband. Susan has recently realized her foolish commitment to Newson. For years she believed herself bound to him, until a neighbor in whom she had confided the story told her that the transaction could not be valid: Michael Henchard is her one true husband. At the fair, Susan finds the furmity-woman who had once run the tent at the fair. The poor, old woman directs Susan to Casterbridge.
Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in Casterbridge and find a group of the local residents gathered outside The Golden Crown Hotel where they see Henchard occupied inside at a grand meal. They learn that Henchard is now the mayor of Casterbridge. The townsfolk are complaining about a crop of bad wheat, when a stranger passes a note to Henchard at the door. Susan is reluctant to approach her husband, and she and Elizabeth-Jane spend the night at another hotel in town: The King of Prussia. At The King of Prussia, Elizabeth-Jane volunteers as a waitress in order to help pay for their stay. She delivers a meal to the stranger who had passed a note to Henchard, a young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae. Henchard arrives to speak to Farfrae, and his wife and daughter listen in on their conversation. Farfrae has a method for restoring wheat, saving Henchard money.
The next day, Henchard convinces Farfrae to stay in Casterbridge and to work as his manager at his prosperous wheat and corn business. Susan contacts Henchard via a note sent by the unsuspecting Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard and Susan arrange to meet that night at a secret location near town: the Ring, an amphitheater, which is an architectural remnant of the historical Roman occupants of the area. Henchard agrees that he and Susan will slowly renew their acquaintance and then remarry. Eventually, the pair does remarry, although Henchard confesses to Farfrae that he had once formed an attachment to a woman named Lucetta. Lucetta’s community shamed her for her obvious, though innocent, infatuation with Henchard, but Henchard had told her of his missing wife and his inability to marry Lucetta for that reason.
Through a pair of mysterious notes sent to both of them, Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane meet at the granary. Thinking that they both are waiting for a third person, the two begin a conversation and get to know each other, although the sender of both notes never appears. Henchard and Farfrae’s once companionable business partnership begins to decay. The two disagree over Henchard’s treatment of a man named Abel Whittle who is perpetually late for work. Farfrae’s good temperament and his mannerisms cause all the workers and villagers to like him and his company. Henchard and Farfrae organize two separate events for a public holiday, and Farfrae’s dance is far more popular. Henchard jealously observes this, and sees Farfrae dancing with Elizabeth-Jane at the event. He and Farfrae part ways, but Farfrae remains in town and begins his own competing wheat and corn managing business. Henchard insists that Farfrae keep his distance from Elizabeth-Jane.
Susan does not live long after her remarriage. After her death, Henchard confesses the truth of Elizabeth-Jane’s parentage to his daughter. Directly after this confession, Henchard finds a letter left by his dead wife and labeled, “not to be opened till Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding-day.” Ignoring this cautionary note, Henchard opens the letter to discover Susan’s confession: this Elizabeth-Jane is not, in fact, his biological daughter, but a second child born to Susan and Richard Newson after the first baby died. Elizabeth-Jane accepts Henchard as her father, but his moment of joy is completely disturbed by his awareness of the truth, which he does not share with her.
While Henchard does not confess the contents of Susan’s letter to Elizabeth-Jane, his behavior towards the young woman changes drastically. He is no longer kind to her. He responds aggressively to any evidence of Elizabeth-Jane’s poor childhood and lack of education. Elizabeth-Jane tries desperately to correct this through reading and self-instruction, but her “father” does not notice. An unhappy Elizabeth-Jane is visiting her mother’s grave when she meets a strange, cultured woman at the gravesite. This woman has recently moved to Casterbridge. She listens to Elizabeth-Jane’s story and invites the young woman to move in with her. Only once this move has been agreed to by Elizabeth-Jane and Henchard does Henchard realize that this woman is Lucetta. Lucetta has recently inherited money and has moved to Casterbridge after hearing of Susan’s death. By inviting Elizabeth-Jane into her home she hopes to encourage her father to visit, as well.
Despite Lucetta’s initial interest in renewing her attachment to Henchard, she meets Farfrae in an encounter that affects them both profoundly. Henchard feels he ought to remarry Lucetta and begins courting her, only to realize that Farfrae is his rival for her affections. Farfrae is unaware of this rivalry. Lucetta confesses the confusing situation to Elizabeth-Jane without explicitly telling her who each of the characters in the story are in real life. Elizabeth-Jane feels that Lucetta owes her loyalty to the first man she was interested in, who she realizes eventually is her father.
Henchard hires Jopp, a man who he had originally passed over in favor of Farfrae as his business manager. In an attempt to drive Farfrae out of business, Henchard and Jopp buy extensively before the harvest. Henchard visits a man who predicts the weather to learn that the harvest will be poor and he hopes to resell at a high profit. However, the weather stays nice and Henchard has to resell at a lower price. At the very end of the harvest, the weather is poor, and Farfrae makes a great profit. Henchard’s business suffers greatly, for which he blames Jopp.
Henchard comes to Lucetta’s home and blackmails her into agreeing to marry him. Henchard has a collection of letters written by Lucetta to himself and he vows to make their past relationship public unless she promises to marry him. The next day, Henchard presides over a local trial and the woman brought to court is the furmity-woman, who recognizes him and reveals Henchard’s dark secret that he once sold his own wife and child. Henchard’s reputation in Casterbridge suffers, as his business also collapses.
While walking, Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane are chased by a loose bull. Henchard appears and grabs the animal, rescuing the women. He escorts Lucetta home where she confesses that she has secretly married Farfrae that week in another town. She wanted to secure him as her husband before Henchard could reveal the truth about their past. She knew she could not marry Henchard after hearing about how he once treated Susan and his own daughter. She begs Henchard to not reveal the truth at this point and so ruin her happy marriage with Farfrae. Despite Henchard’s anger, he does not expose the secret. Elizabeth-Jane is also hurt and angry to learn of Lucetta’s marriage to Farfrae, and she moves out of her friend’s house.
Henchard loses his bankrupt business, his home, and all his personal possessions to his creditors. Henchard frequently stands on the second bridge near the lower part of town bemoaning his situation, and, finally, when his twenty years are up, he begins to drink heavily again. Henchard visits Farfrae, who has purchased what used to be Henchard’s grand house, and reads several of Lucetta’s letters to him aloud. However, in the moment, he cannot bring himself to hurt her by sharing her name as the author of the letters. Henchard gives Jopp the letters to return to Lucetta, so she can keep her secret. Jopp, however, is angry with Lucetta for ignoring his requests that she put in a good word for him as a working partner for her husband. The letters fall into the hands of the villagers, who plan a skimmington, a method of publically shaming those who are perceived to be disloyal or unworthy of their spouses.
Henchard plans to kill Farfrae and confronts him in a hayloft. The two struggle, but, again, Henchard is unable to do through with a harmful plan. Farfrae rides out of town, and is therefore absent that evening as the skimmington occurs. The skimmington features effigies of Lucetta and Henchard, tied back-to-back, and paraded through the streets. Elizabeth-Jane arrives at Lucetta’s home and attempts to stop her from seeing the parade, but she does and collapses. Farfrae returns, but Lucetta has become dangerously ill. While she may have confessed some of the truth behind her illness to her husband, it is unclear to what extent she shared the story of her past. At four o’clock that morning, Lucetta passes away.
Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane renew their connection. Henchard grows to depend on the girl and her affection for him, despite his knowledge that she is not his biological daughter. Richard Newson, who all had believed dead, arrives in Casterbridge and visits Henchard. He had pretended to be dead in order to free his wife to return to Henchard, but, learning of her death, he has arrived in Casterbridge to find his daughter. Henchard tells Newson that Elizabeth-Jane is dead, in order to keep her love and attention for himself.
Henchard plans to commit suicide at a place in the river near the second bridge, but does not when he sees his own effigy from the skimmington floating in the river. This sign, or vision of a possible future, saves Henchard’s life. In his depressed state, Henchard realizes the burden he is on Elizabeth-Jane’s happiness and leaves Casterbridge, wandering the countryside for his remaining days. Richard Newson returns to Casterbridge and is reacquainted with his daughter. Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae are married, and her father dances joyfully at their wedding. Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae seek out Henchard, only to learn from Abel Whittle that he has passed away. Henchard has left behind a will, a final expression of his bitterness and loneliness in the world.